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Democrats Had a Winning Message in 2012—and Promptly Forgot It in 2014

JIM WATSON/Getty Images

The day of the 2012 presidential election, while reporting on the south side of Columbus, Ohio, I came across a 50-year-old man named Matt Bimberg who was waiting for the bus. He was a middle-aged white man with a Detroit Tigers cap in a mostly black neighborhood, and was returning home from a warehouse job as a forklift operator. He got the job thanks to a three-week training course paid for by the U.S. Department of Labor, and for that reason decided to vote for Barack Obama after having voted for John McCain in 2008.

“My line of thinking was that under Romney and Ryan, it would be more a trickle-down administration,” he told me at the time. “Their thinking is to give that money to corporations and the rich in tax breaks, and some will trickle down. But it didn’t work then and it won’t work now. Romney reminds me so much of Reagan’s theory of supply-side economics. It scares me.”

I was hardly alone in ascribing Obama’s reelection under tough circumstances to his and other Democrats’ ability to frame the choice in the terms Bimberg laid out: we, the Democrats, are on your side, and those guys, the Republicans, are not. One of the biggest questions hanging over the Democrats in the wake of this week’s drubbing is why they failed to apply that lesson of 2012 in this election. Yes, as many have noted, the context of this election was simply different in a midterm with lower turnout, with most of the competitive Senate races in unfriendly terrain.

Still, it is worth asking why Democrats failed to replicate that fundamental framing. The groundwork for it is still there: despite Obama’s dwindling popularity since 2012 and voters’ sour feelings about the direction of the country, surveys still show the public strongly favoring Obama and the Democrats on the “who cares more about people like me” question. Wall Street and big business strongly favored Republicans in this election, as they did in 2012. And issue referenda on this Election Night showed how popular the Democrats’ economic policy proposals are in isolation, even in deep-red territory, as initiatives to raise the minimum wage passed easily in Arkansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Alaska.

Yet Democratic candidates who support policies like raising the minimum wage were beaten by candidates from a party that has been blocking that proposal and others in Congress. What gives? A big part of the problem is that the party lacked the unifying foil that Mitt Romney, of Bain Capital and the "47 percent" comments, provided in 2012. Related to this is the scattershot nature of the party’s deployment of the “who’s on your side” argument. Some pushed it hard, like Michelle Nunn in Georgia, going after David Perdue’s Bain-like behavior in business. But others, like Mark Udall in Colorado, went in an entirely different direction with overwrought attacks on “personhood” amendments and contraception. Meanwhile, even those who tried the “who’s on your side” argument often did so half-heartedly. Mark Pryor, in Arkansas, has resisted minimum wage hikes to allay his state’s largest employer, Wal-Mart. In Kentucky, Alison Lundergan Grimes pushed the issue hard, but was notoriously ambivalent about touting another policy that has helped hundreds of thousands of low-income Kentuckians, the Affordable Care Act. In Iowa, Bruce Braley hit his opponent, Joni Ernst, on the minimum wage and outsourcing, but his self-styled prairie populism was sorely undermined by his farmer-slighting comment in a closed-door meeting with Texas trial lawyers.

In some places, the “who’s on your side” argument still carried the day for Democrats. In New Hampshire, Jeanne Shaheen fended off Scott Brown by arguing that he was very much not on the state’s side—someone with closer ties to Wall Street than the Granite State. In Connecticut, the very vulnerable governor, Dannel Malloy, was able to give the Romney treatment to his opponent, former private equity executive Tom Foley. In Michigan, Gary Peters won an open Senate seat with a classic Rust Belt populist campaign, even as Michigan’s Republican governor was reelected.

But all of the other aforementioned Democrats lost, not least because of their startlingly paltry support among non-college-educated white voters, precisely those who stand to benefit most from policies like raising the minimum wage and expanded health coverage. This is causing great consternation for Democratic strategists and pollsters, who, as Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent noted on Wednesday, blame a “failure to connect with these voters’ economic concerns.” Democrats may have campaigned on issues like the minimum wage and pre-K education, "but these didn’t cut through people’s economic anxieties, because they didn’t believe government can successfully address them." Pollster Mark Mellman told him, “People are deeply suspicious that government can deliver on these problems. And they are not wrong. We’ve been promising that government can be a tool to improve people’s economic situation for decades, and by and large, it hasn’t happened.”

Part of the problem, no doubt, is a messaging one: getting more voters to understand why some of the Democratic policies they support have not come into fruition because they have been blocked by Republicans in Congress. That the minimum wage could be $10.10 an hour, were it not for Republicans voting against it. That the infrastructure bill Democrats have intermittently been pushing, which would have paid for x or y project in the voters’ district and created x or y jobs, was blocked by Republicans on this or that date. Democrats should also be taking more credit for small pocketbook gains they have secured for people, whether it’s reductions in credit card fees in the credit card reform bill of 2009 or lower student loan costs as a result of the administration’s reforms or the slowing growth in health premiums for many private plans under the Affordable Care Act. Some Democrats have a congenital wariness about attaching hard dollar figures to their policies and proposals, and need to get over that if they want voters to grasp what’s at stake. As one former Democratic elected official put it to me this week, “You’ve got to own the shit that you’ve done and make [Republicans] own the stuff they haven’t done.”

But the problem isn’t just messaging. As Harold Meyerson notes at the American Prospect, the Democrats also need to come up with a broader agenda to address voters’ economic anxiety in an age of stagnant wages and soaring inequality:

What, besides raising the minimum wage, do the Democrats propose to do about the shift in income from wages to profits, from labor to capital, from the 99 percent to the 1 percent? How do they deliver for an embattled middle class in a globalized, de-unionized, far-from-full-employment economy, where workers have lost the power they once wielded to ensure a more equitable distribution of income and wealth? What Democrat, besides Elizabeth Warren, campaigned this year to diminish the sway of the banks? Who proposed policies that would give workers the power to win more stable employment and higher incomes, not just at the level of the minimum wage but across the economic spectrum?

Coming up with this agenda, and pushing it in a way that voters comprehend, needs to be the overriding Democratic priority over the next two years. Not only because regaining the “who’s on your side” advantage is, along with higher turnout, the key to winning in 2016, but because it is what the party is supposed to stand for—and because it goes to the heart of the country’s current economic plight.